Biography of Jean Rhys (1890-1979)
Ella Gwendolen Rees Williams, the woman who would become known throughout the literary world as Jean Rhys, was born on August 24, 1890, in Roseau, Dominica, one of the former English colonies in the Caribbean. Like the heroine of her most famous work, Wide Sargasso Sea, Rhys was of Creole heritage; her father was British while her mother was a native white West Indian. In fact, Rhys had a great deal in common with the character of Antoinette Cosway, and her personal experiences likely shaped the events depicted in her fiction. Perhaps most notably, Rhys's great-grandfather was a slave-owner who acquired a Dominican sugar plantation in the nineteenth century, but after the Emancipation Act was passed his estate fell on hard times. Subsequent riots led to the looting of the house, which was eventually burned by arsonists. Rhys visited her family's ancestral abode in 1936 and was extremely affected by the experience. She purportedly had the idea for Wide Sargasso Sea not long thereafter.
Like Antoinette, as a white girl in a chiefly black community, Rhys grew up feeling alienated and alone in the Caribbean. In 1907, at the age of sixteen, she moved to England for schooling, but after the death of her father she was forced to discontinue her studies. She then drifted into a series of jobs that included chorus girl, mannequin, and artist's model, before working as a volunteer during World War I. In 1919 she married a minor Dutch writer by the name of Jean Lenglet. The couple had two children, a daughter and a son who died in infancy. During the 1920s they traveled haphazardly about the continent, occasionally taking up residence in Paris, where they lived as Bohemian artists and were exposed to the developing genre of modernism. The feelings of displacement Rhys must have experienced during this time (as throughout her life) are manifest in her works, most of which deal with drifting and marginalized women transplanted far from their roots.
Lenglet was sentenced to prison a few years later, and in 1924 Rhys met and began an affair with the modernist literary critic Ford Madox Ford, who encouraged her to write. Their romance eventually ended with much bitterness, but Rhys nevertheless continued to support herself as an author. In 1927 she published The Left Bank and Other Stories under her penname. This was followed by the novels Postures (1928, American title Quartet); After Leaving Mr. Mackenzie (1931); Voyage in the Dark (1934); and Good Morning, Midnight (1939). The scholar Francis Wyndham, who was instrumental to Rhys's rediscovery in the second half of the twentieth century, has stated that all of these novels are rather autobiographical in nature and deal with essentially the same female protagonist at different stages of her life. Indeed, Rhys once declared, "I have only ever written about myself."
Although her novels and short stories met with moderate success, Jean Rhys disappeared completely from the public eye between the years of 1939 and 1957, and was widely believed to be dead. Having divorced Lenglet in 1933, she went on to marry two other men, both of whom passed away and left her a widow. Rhys then retired to England, where she shunned literary circles, lived in poverty, and developed a fondness for alcohol that would haunt her the rest of her life. In 1949 she was arrested for assaulting neighbors and police, and in 1958, after the BBC aired a dramatization of Good Morning, Midnight, she was rediscovered as one of Britain's great writers. The much-revised Wide Sargasso Sea, which Rhys had been working on for years, was finally published in 1966, and it was awarded the W.H. Smith literary award the following year. In recognition of her literary contributions, Rhys was honored as a Commander of the British Empire in 1978. She died on May 14, 1979.